For the last several years Disney has been living in the past. The majority of the studio’s successful output over the last decade has been through one of its properties such as Marvel, Pixar, or the upcoming Star Wars sequels – and if not made by one of those companies then heavily influenced by them – or through modern retellings of its earlier animated films. Even its recent original offerings, such as Frozen or the stellar Frankenweenie have their roots in the past. Prior to finding success buying up every successful brand it could, Disney started a trend of making new films based upon its old theme park rides. Pirates of the Caribbean of course justified this strategy, The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion a bit less so. With Tomorrowland, Disney has pulled off the ultimate in product integration: an original film based on a theme park ride loaded with the exact brand of nostalgia that Disney has recently relied on and the “wonder” which its brand was historically built upon. Trouble is, however, that these aren’t the only things at work in the film, and when assembled, the parts make for a disjointed, clunky ride.
The most curious of these elements is that Tomorrowland‘s premise is essentially a well-crafted, big-budget, child-friendly version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (itself a fairy tale and bedtime story for people likely too selfish to be parents, but, alas, not yet a theme park ride). Brad Bird, who made his live-action debut with the franchise-saving Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol after establishing genius animation cred with the similarly retro-futuristic The Iron Giant and a pair of Pixar movies, loads the first half of the film with so much objectivist dogma that by the time George Clooney makes his first in-story appearance, you expect a 70-minute monologue explaining on the horrors of collectivism and the virtues of selfishness. Fortunately this doesn’t happen, at least at that time or to that extent.
By itself, a director injecting an agenda into a film isn’t bad, even when that agenda is deplorable, instead Tomorrowland‘s main problem is simply that the story, the thing meant to link the messages and action scenes together, becomes murky from a contradictory mix of oversimplification and under-explanation. Essentially anything having to do with the film’s theme of complete incompetence by government and any non-special person is entirely spelled out, while elements of the actual fiction are left to implication. The second half of the film offers a bit of a change from the first, as though Bird and his co-writers thought that they’d laid the Atlas Shrugged allegories on a bit too thick and decided to muddle up the allusions a bit with some other stuff. The result is a refreshingly optimistic outlook on the future, however murky the path may be to get there. If nothing else, the take away from the plot is that not everything has to be doom and gloom and inevitable crisis, no matter what every other movie in existence says.
What helps the film along the way is strong performances and great visual flair. Clooney, as the film’s heavyweight, is a perfect presence in how his classic Hollywood charm and thoroughly modern, progressive character mesh almost flawlessly with the various themes at work in Tomorrowland, objectivism notwithstanding. The bulk of the film is handled by Britt Robertson in the lead role who brings a great mix of too-cool detachment and uncontained child-like glee. Her conviction in all of the various twists and turns, even at times when Clooney seems a bit tired, brings the story to better life than the script itself does. Similarly strong is Raffey Cassidy as, essentially, the physical embodiment of the 1950’s Disney ideal, and the film’s resident badass. That’s right, this adventure movie’s strongest character, physically and in some places narratively, is a twelve-year-old girl, a version of the Disney princess. It should never be said that Tomorrowland isn’t without invention.
It’s precisely through this sense of invention that the film works best. While beautiful CGI has become a standard of any spectacle film, Tomorrowland employs its effects in fun and striking ways. The futuristic city is beautifully designed as exactly what people in the 1960’s would have pictured the future to be, complete with old style jetpacks, floating cars, and ultra-modern fashions. Even the people are exactly fitting with the wholesome, Disney-esque aesthetic at the time: good looking and, well, let’s say… bright. Not that there isn’t any diversity in the future, but it’s hard not to notice that the color palette of the time is decidedly on the pale end of the human spectrum. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of enjoyment found in the use of retro sci-fi props as the futuristic instruments they were meant to represent. But what Tomorrowland‘s effects really do best is drive home the idea of a reclaiming the future of our past. That is, rekindling the hopes and dreams we had as children (before they were crushed by the incompetent government and complacent, mediocre “takers”) and foster that creativity in children now.
Putting aside the film’s murky messaging, the ultimate theme is rather nice. Of course, it is rather hard to break from that theme when the climax and epilogue include both Clooney and the antagonist (tellingly titled “Governor”) speaking the film’s message to the audience. Literally. Just like John Galt. Still, when a film offers an admonishment of climate change deniers and austerity with a full-throated embrace of science, innovation, and experimentation as part of its brighter future, it’s hard not at least admire the attempt. In some ways, and I’m still working on this argument, Tomorrowland may in fact be Bird’s case for a progressive reclaiming of libertarianism from the ultra-right wingers using it to justify their fear of science. Or perhaps I’m just reading a bit too much into a two-hour commercial for Disney theme parks.
Tomorrowland is precisely the film Disney should want it to be in how it stays very true to the company’s artistic branding of wonder and imagination in the kids and nostalgia in the adults, while also fulfilling the corporate desire to promote its theme park attractions, foster trust in big companies, hold up individual innovators as the greatest minds ever (most specifically Nikola Tesla and Gustave Eiffel, but it isn’t a long walk from them to Walt Disney), campaign for deregulation, and pine for the glorious future of the 40’s through 60’s, a time which happens to be Disney’s creative peak. The film itself is more an embodiment of modern Disney products: fun, albeit unremarkable, but ultimately positive.